install vs. cp; and mmap

If we hand write a Makefile, we should always stick to install instead of using cp for the installation commands. Not only is it more convenient, but it does things right (cp does things wrong).

For example, if we attempt to update /bin/bash, which is currently running, with “cp ... /bin/bash”, we get a “text busy” error. If we attempt to update /lib/ with “cp ... /lib/”, then we either get “text busy” (in ancient versions of Linux) or breaks each and every running program within a fraction of a second (in recent versions of Linux). install does the thing right in both situations.

The reason why cp fails is that it simply attempts to open the destination file in write-only mode and write the new contents. This causes problem because Linux (and all contemporary Unices as well as Microsoft Windows) uses memory mapping (mmap) to load executables and dynamic libraries.

The contents of an executable or dynamic library are mmap’d into the linear address space of relevant processes. Therefore, any change in the underlying file affects the mmap’d memory regions and can potentially break programs. (MAP_PRIVATE guarantees changes by processes to those memory regions are handled by COW without affecting the underlying file. On the contrary, POSIX leaves to implementations whether COW should be used if the underlying file is modified. In fact, for purpose of efficiency, in Linux, such modifications are visible to processes even though MAP_PRIVATE may have be used.)

There is an option MAP_DENWRITE which disallows any modification to the underlying file, designed to avoid situations described above. Executables and dynamic libraries are all mmap’d with this option. Unfortunately, it turned out MAP_DENYWRITE became a source of DoS attacks, forcing Linux to ignore this option in recent versions.

Executables are mmap’d by the kernel (in the execve syscall). For kernel codes, MAP_DENYWRITE still works, and therefore we get “text busy” errors if we attempt to modify the executable.

On the other hand, dynamic libraries are mmap’d by userspace codes (for example, by loaders like /lib/ These codes still pass MAP_DENYWRITE to the kernel, but newer kernels silently ignores this option. The bad consequence is that you can break the whole system if you think you’re only upgrading the C runtime library.

Then, how does install solve this problem? Very simple – unlinking the file before writing the new one. Then the old file (no longer present in directory entries but still in disk until the last program referring to it exits) and the new file have different inodes. Programs started before the upgrading (continuing using the old file) and those after the upgrading (using the new version) will both be happy.

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